Cover crop challenges in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

A recent series of cover crop educational meetings and discussions brought interesting new ideas into consideration.

Multi-species cover crop in Chatham, Michigan, in July 2013. Photo credit: Jim Isleib, MSU Extension
Multi-species cover crop in Chatham, Michigan, in July 2013. Photo credit: Jim Isleib, MSU Extension

Agriculture across Michigan is very diverse. Cash crop areas raise corn, soybeans, wheat, dry beans, sugarbeets and other crops. Fruits and vegetables thrive in well-adapted Michigan environments. Livestock and dairy are distributed throughout the state. Numerous specialty crops and enterprises round out the picture.

Northern Lower Michigan shares in this diversity, but once you cross the Mackinac Bridge, you’ll notice a change. Farming in the Upper Peninsula has its differences. A trip across the Upper Peninsula region, from far east to west in the middle of winter, really drives that message home. Michigan State University Extension senior research associate and cover crop expert Dean Baas found out about this for himself. Baas and I conducted four evening cover crop educational meetings in the Michigan cities of Rudyard (Chippewa County), Chatham (Alger County), Hancock (Houghton County) and Escanaba (Delta County) from Feb. 9-12, 2015.

The purpose of the meetings was to update farmers on cover crop use in Michigan, provide access to tools used to select and manage cover crops, such as the Midwest Cover Crops Council selector tool, and begin discussions on appropriate uses for cover crops in the Upper Peninsula agricultural systems and growing environment. Each participant received a complimentary copy of the “Midwest Cover Crops Field Guide, Second Edition.”

A few key points emerged at the meetings.

  • The short growing season in the Upper Peninsula limits cover crop options.
  • Forage systems, not row crops, dominate Upper Peninsula agriculture. Cover crop utilization based on annual row crop systems doesn’t apply very well.
  • Cover crops with potential for livestock feed were of high interest to Upper Peninsula farmers.
  • Livestock produces’ opportunities for cover crop use to improve soils must integrate with forage production.
  • The time when hay and pastures are replaced or renovated is a window of opportunity for including cover crops in the process.
  • Some cool-season cover crops might do better in the far north if planted earlier in summer than possible in hotter summer environments further south.
  • Some cover crop species which dependably winterkill further south where snow cover is lighter may not winterkill in Upper Peninsula environments with deep, insulating snow cover.
  • Many Upper Peninsula farmers do not have access to special equipment to plant cover crops, so establishment techniques should employ existing equipment.
  • Cover crop establishment during the growing season in small grains could be important in Upper Peninsula cropping systems.
  • Most research and information on cover crops is based on locations much further south with longer growing seasons and milder winters. Research and demonstration work on cover crops is needed in the Upper Great Lakes region.

Efforts are underway for 2015 to explore and evaluate cover crops in Upper Peninsula forage systems. On-farm demonstrations and field days will provide farmers another opportunity to consider these potentially valuable tools and techniques.

For more information, contact Jim Isleib at or 906-387-2530.

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